In the past year three stellar queer films have come out of France. Each was pioneering, offering new perspectives on the very idea of ‘queer cinema’. Two of these films, “Stranger by the Lake” and “Blue is the Warmest Color” have met with critical acclaim. The third, “Eastern Boys” deserves a place alongside them.
What makes these films so exceptional within the genre? Each certainly innovates by eschewing any traditional ‘coming out’ narrative that structures so many classic queer movies. They also represent another shift in emphasis: none focus exclusively on any one subjective ‘queer’ story. Instead, each focus, in their own ways, on the broader implications and consequences of sexuality in particular contexts; sexuality is not entirely incidental, but neither is it central. It’s true that in “Blue” Adele discovers her sexual desires in the midst of becoming an adult, but what’s at stake is not her ability to cope with lesbian attraction; the film is distinguished by its deft investigation of fluid sexuality itself, rather than lesbian sexuality in particular. “Stranger” takes a more rigorous approach to address the dangers of self-denial, but in so doing comments on the claustrophobia caused by social restrictions instead of simply presenting a highly individualized reaction to them. This representational progress continues in Robin Campillo’s “Eastern Boys”, a shape-shifting thriller that succeeds as a harrowing home-invasion nail-biter and a tender love story.
At Paris’ Gare du Nord train station a group of eastern European boys loiter outside and in, looking to turn quick tricks. Their ages are never disclosed; the youngest is likely in his mid-teens, the oldest, their leader, known as ‘Boss’ (Daniil Vorobyov), is maybe in his late 20s. For the first ten minutes or so Campillo mostly frames the boys in long shots as they speak in their native tongues, unsubtitled. It’s a jarring technique that eventually reaps rewards as it reveals the attendant dislocation and lack of voice felt by the undocumented immigrants.
Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) is a well dressed middle-aged man trawling the station for some afternoon delight. He sets his eyes on Marek (Kirill Emelyanov), a boy hovering somewhere between 16 and 18, who associates with the hustling pack. Daniel’s suspicion should be triggered by Marek’s claim that he will “do anything for just 50 Euros.” Even for a teenage hustler in 2013 that’s a lowball demand. Acquiescing to lust, Daniel willingly agrees and gives Marek his address for a meeting the following day.
At the allotted time, a young boy shows up. He calls himself “Marek”, though Daniel has never seen him before. After forcing himself in, he opens the door for the rest of the gang. Calmly and coolly the group, headed by Boss, strips Daniel’s apartment bare, but not before hanging for a while, playing video games, and dancing to techno music. Campillo films the scene with heart-stopping precision; this is a home-invasion thriller at its best. For a time, the viewer is unsure how Daniel will escape. Boss’s impervious demeanor and quietly menacing control of the troupe lifts the tension. The Marek whom Daniel met shows up only briefly, but by this point the action is unstoppable. Daniel’s one, faint protestation has already been shot down by Boss: “You invited us here – you asked for this.”
Perhaps his libidinous naivety overpowered his good-sense, but Daniel clearly didn’t invite thievery into his life. Maybe, though, he believes he is somehow culpable, hence the quiet resignation. To his surprise, Marek – the real one this time – shows up days later asking if Daniel still wants to fuck for 50 Euros. Daniel agrees. Marek proceeds to the bedroom and lies motionless as Daniel assumes the position. The young prostitute continues to come back a few times a week; over time their relationship develops into something more meaningful than the casual, economic exchange with which it started. Marek tells Daniel of his difficult Ukranian childhood and the oppressive conditions he now lives in with the group in a hotel on the outskirts of the city.
Herein lies what, at first glance, appears a significant flaw in the narrative arch of “Eastern Boys”. Would Daniel welcome Marek, the boy who facilitated a crime against him, back into his home? It seems highly implausible, almost absurdly so. But then, Daniel has already shown himself to be passive. A related, perhaps deeper, problem, comes in the way that Campillo films the sex scenes. They are frustrating, almost neutering, replete with conveniently obscuring limbs, a lack of full frontal nudity or any kissing whatsoever. These choices, however, are more astute than they first seem. Through them we can make sense of the film’s second half.
Daniel continues to care for Marek: he buys him a phone, clothes, and gives him a monthly stipend. He is now less client than father. Thankfully at this point he also mandates that they stop having sex and sleep in separate bedrooms. Gaining his trust, Marek reveals to Daniel that his true name is Rouslan and that he is held in his profession because Boss keeps his passport and papers in a locked safe.
The film’s third act takes an exciting, unexpected turn that feels every bit as queasy and uncomfortable as a late-era Chabrol mystery. Daniel, now Rouslan’s protector, sets into motion a plan for his ward’s independence. The culmination is a heartbreaking scene that shows the human toll for everyone involved, including Boss. Campillo makes each character complex and multidimensional, a trait that unveils itself in the gripping climax.
Like “Blue “and “Stranger”, “Eastern Boys” has a central protagonist with a fluid and undefined sexuality; it’s unclear, and frankly unimportant, whether or not Rouslan would identify as gay. The film is only marginally about sexuality. Once it becomes clear that Daniel and Rouslan’s relationship has morphed into something more familial Campillo’s decision to shy away from a more explicit depiction of their sexual relations makes sense. Their bond is tender, though at times one can’t help but feel that Campillo is toying with the darker side of this newly paternal relationship. Rouslan is not underage (in France the age of consent is 15), but some of the film’s tropes seem to flirt with that boundary, making him into something of a legal Lolita: purposefully on the right side of criminality, but raising similar questions about Daniel’s motivation and, possibly, propriety. It is precisely this kind of subtle investigation into complex human interactions that makes this film a major work, on a level with its more famous, but not more deserving, compatriots.